A Look At Life: Baking

31st July 2015

Feminine or Feminist?

Fighting for the cause... in between manicures, trips to the hairdressers and baking cupcakes

Jennifer Lipman

Is this what a feminist looks like? Elbow-deep in cake mix, flour on my forehead, rolling pin beside me and cookbooks everywhere? Surely I should be out on the stump, championing my right to ‘have it all’, earn the same as men and leave my legs unshaven?

Coming of age at the turn of the last century, if feminism was mentioned – not that if often was – it was usually in the past tense. The battle for equality had been won and, as far as my female friends and I could tell, women no longer had to prove themselves. The term ‘feminist’ conjured up images of angry women burning their bras and boycotting beauty pageants; scenes from the 1960s, not today.

Yet in recent years, thanks to forces including social media (and the online vitriol directed at ‘uppity’ women), feminism has been put firmly back in the picture, with no end of writers and bloggers calling out everyday sexism and launching campaigns to challenge discrimination. It no longer marks you out as worthy to complain about misogyny; not when global stars like Taylor Swift and Emma Watson are doing so. Sexism still saturates modern life, but now it’s fashionable to be fighting back.

For all that, though, there is still no consensus about what being a feminist entails, and I, along with many others, have been left baffled. Is it anti-feminist to pour over showbiz gossip, for example? Are women like Miley Cyrus or Beyoncé empowered when they wear revealing outfits and gyrate on stage, or are they being exploited? Does feminism mean you shouldn’t work part time, or be willing to be a stay-at-home-mum should you have the chance? Is it a betrayal to take your husband’s name?

Then there’s the housewife question, which – as a diehard Great British Bake Off fan – is the one that gets me. “When she stopped conforming to the conventional picture of femininity she finally began to enjoy being a woman,” claimed Betty Friedan, back when girls studied home economics while boys did ‘manly’ lessons. But was she right? Should we be hanging up our aprons for good?

There’s a school of thought that says women will only be liberated when they get out of the kitchen. In The Times not long ago, Vicky Pryce – whose credits include economist, writer, and government adviser – admonished the next generation. ‘Don’t bake,’ she said, when asked how she got where she did.

And yes, it makes sense that if you are leading the charge for equality, or trying to get ahead professionally, icing cakes or shaping serviettes into swans might not be the best use of your time. Better to buy our baked goods from M&S – after all, the men we’re competing with in the workplace aren’t worrying about being domestic paradigms. And even if we’ve ‘made it’, shouldn’t we be using our free time to improve our minds?

I simplify, of course, but not much; the suggestion that women need to divest themselves of ‘traditional female traits’ in order to get ahead is ever-present. Yet isn’t feminism supposed to be about more choices, not fewer?
According to Polly Vernon, the journalist and author of the book
Hot Feminist, for too long women have been curtailed by a feminism that dictates ‘what you can’t do and shouldn’t say’. I think she’s right.

Because the thing is, I rather like the kitchen, just as I enjoy other ‘female’ hobbies, like painting my nails or having my hair done. Not all of it – spare me the washing-up – but I like serving up a delicious home-cooked meal, fashioning a cupcake into a work of art, or setting the table beautifully. I like to feel like I have accomplished my domestic tasks, just as I do with my professional ones. Crucially though, it’s not about validation, I do it for myself.

For the generation who fought the first feminist battles and had to constantly prove themselves, perhaps there was no room for both. But while the challenge is far from over, it’s high time we choose to be the feminists we want to be, rather than the ones we are supposed to be. 

Nigella once said, ‘there’s something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female’. I’m no domestic goddess, but trying to be one doesn’t make me any less of a champion of my sex.

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